Sunday, February 13, 2022

541. Ontologies and dynamic systems

ontology is the philosophy of what exists in the world, is about the ‘furniture of the world’. What are the properties of  things that exist? ‘Things’ here can be anything: an object, an organism, a community, a technical system, world trade. Ideally, there would be only one ontology that covers everything. However, like any theory, ontology is not some magical grasp of all truth that represents reality beyond our perception. It is a device for ordering our perceptions (MacCumber, 2007), and there may be different ontologies for different kinds of things.

 According to the dominant ontology, things have a boundary, an internal structure and external interaction with other things. There can be a hierarchy of things, with elements in a coherent system, that in turn is an element in a ‘higher ‘level’ system, such as organs in a body, or people in a community.

 Systems are subject to the law of increasing ‘entropy’, i.e. the dissipation of energy and structure. A pan of hot water, when taken from the stove, will dissipate its heat to its environment. An organism that no longer ingests energy in the form of food will decay. Life is a fight against increasing entropy, maintaining the distinction of internal structure.  

 Systems are networked, with relations between the elements, called ‘nodes’. This is a second ontology, of nodes in a network, which renders the boundaries of the elements of a system permeable, although that was also implied, to some extent, by the external interaction between things that affects internal structure. In some treatments of this ontology, however, no identifiable or stable identity of things is left: the node is entirely determined by its network positions.

 In the body those ‘ties’ between nodes are streams of blood, transporting oxygen and food, hormones, or electrical impulses along neurons. In commuties they are relations of trade, family, care, friendship, sex, fighting, organisation, hierarchy, communication, contamination, hypes, mobs, voting. The connections between ‘nodes’ can yield complementarity, sustaining each other, maintaining a trembling equilibrium in the system, with small deviations and repair , called ‘homeostasis’. But it can also propagate collapse. When one node collapses, for whatever reason, that can burden or withhold support to  a neighbouring node, and so on.

 Such positive  feedback can cause collapse of the entire system, as in the financial system in 1930 and 2008, and the lockdown of society, in an attempt to stop the propagation of infection, as in Covid-19. Such system collapse is studied in the ‘theory of dynamic systems’  (Holland, 1992; Bardi, 2017). Collapse of the world economic system was studied by the ‘Club of Rome’, with its ‘Limits to Growth’, in the 1980’s (Bardi, 2017).

 Such collapse is often faster than the growth of the system, which is called the ‘Seneca effect’, attributed to the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca (Bardi, 2017). An easy way to explain this difference in speed of growth and collapse is that growth is subject to ‘negative feedback’, due to increasing resistance to the addition of something new, in ‘decreasing returns’ to the efforts involved, as the system becomes more complex and resources and space for extension get depleted. The decline, on the other hand, has positive feedback, in the propagation of the demise of a node to neighbouring nodes, repeated in increasing numbers.

 A third ontology is that of internal forces that adapt the internal structure of things to changes in the environment, studied in the theory of ‘Complex Adaptive Systems’ (CAS; Holland, 1992). Elements that contribute most to a collective endeavour are reinforced, by the ‘attribution of merit’, and the ones with low merit decline and disappear. The collective endeavor may be the maintenance of homeostasis, or creation of a new one. This is how neuronal networks in the brain develop (Edelman, 1987). Such evolutionary adaptation can also apply to the ‘rules’, the connections between nodes. Some rules may arise for trial randomly, as in in the form of ‘genetic algorithms’ that mimick the random generation of new forms of life in the ‘crossover’ between chromosomes in the sexual reproduction of animals. They may, when succesful, grow to dominance.This dynamic ontology is redolent of previous ontologies of adaptive force, such as Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’.

 The difference between the three ontologies is not necessarily limitative to any of them. I already indicated how the node ontology can be added to the dominant ontology, with permeable boundaries to things. Adaptive force also may be added, in a CAS.

 How about current society? Is there a stable homeostasis? Is it resilient to deviations? If not, can the system be adaptive? Bardi (2017) compared the decreasing returns to scale of growth, in burgeoning complexity, piling up regulations, lifting bureaucracy to new heights, to the notion of entropy. I am not sure that is valid. Another notion, connected perhaps is that of EROI, Energy Return On Investment, i.e. the energy one gets out of a system minus the energy one has to put in. As resources get depleted and an increasingly complex system requires more and more energy to press out an addition. When EROI becomes negative, the sysem is no longer viable.

 As past homeostasis is breaking down, in a rising dominance of self-interest over civility, yielding an atomisation in polarised lumps and bumps of people that no longer communicate with each other, there seems to be an increasing threat to democracy, and perhaps autocracy is the only way to restore homeostasis, in imposing regulation, reducing freedom, to ensure homeostasis. Or can democracy  survive in some form of controlled anarchy? I have to further think this out.                

 Bardi, U. 2017, The Seneca effect, Springer.

Edelman, Gerald M. 1987, Neural Darwinism: The theory of neuronal group selection, New York: Basic Books.

Holland, J.H. 1992, ‘Complex Adaptive Systems’, Daedalus, 121/1, 17-30.

MacCumber, J. 2007, Reshaping Reason, Toward a new philosophy, Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press.


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